The myth of the minotaur is a tale about perverse secrets, insanity and abandonment. A mad queen with an unspeakable desire (that's Pasiphae, who mated with a bull), a monstrous child hidden in a maze (the minotaur his horned self), a hero who deserts his lover (that's Ariadne) on a lonely island. In the world of opera, myth has bred myth, as Monteverdi's fabled homage to the abandoned princess has itself become lost, a celebrated work written in a crazed rush of creativity and now gone from human knowledge but for one haunting aria.
In Chamber Made Opera's The Minotaur Trilogy, the twin myths of the monster in the maze and the lost opera are entwined in a production as enigmatic and evocative as legendry itself. They call it an opera but it's not that, really. There's no story, no definable songs. It is more a surrealist soundscape, so unique in construction it's almost its own form.
There are six performers: three musicians and three singers, though roles on stage are fluid. The score was never notated. Rather, Chamber Made's artistic director David Young painted it as a series of watercolours, with instructions that performers take their cues from the intensity of colours, smoothness of lines and other such visual features. What results is a bizarre but utterly fascinating work.
Taking advantage of the heightened acoustics of the Recital Centre's Salon, the performers draw sounds in soft and strange ways. A double bass bow might be scratched on a string, or rapped on the floor, or sawed on a cymbal, or swished through the air. Instruments are made to elicit noise you wouldn't think they were capable of. So too human voices, especially the uplifting and unearthly voice of soprano Deborah Kayser. It does indeed feel like a painting in sound, music presented in an impressionist blur with no hint of linear construction.
Visually too it defies form. In the first movement, Island, the performers act and dress like lunatics in a woodcut of Bedlam. The second, Labyrinth, happens in darkness with occassional flashes of light exposing dream-like tableaux to crescendos of ecstasy or horror from the singers. In the third, Boats, Ariadne's abandonment is represented with Kayser confined to a small dais singing counterpoint to the rest of the ensemble, arrayed like a departing fleet with white feathers on their heads like sails.
To call Minotaur merely "experimental" would not do it justice. It is like a performance seen through a rift in space-time, from some far future or distant planet where the rules of aesthetics are different and only the effect of music on the basal elements of the brain is common. At times it feels like a giant Dada-ist joke on art itself, at others like bearing witness to an ancient temple ritual, at once inscrutable and profound.
As in painting, where an individual dot of colour means nothing, the effect is had only in synthesis. Each act, while baffling in the detail, nonetheless delivers a strong evocation of feeling - the madness of Pasiphae, the confusion of the Labyrinth, the forlorn desolation of Ariadne.
It's a show that'll send traditionalists running for cover but for seekers of truly innovative art, Minotaur is a must. It is a wholly unique experience, unlike anything else this side of dreaming.
Chamber Made Opera and Melbourne Recital Centre in association with Melbourne Festival present
The Minotaur Trilogy
Created by Margaret Cameron & David Young
Venue: Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Dates: 18 – Sat 20 Oct, 2012
Tickets: $85 – $75
Bookings: www.melbournerecital.com.au | (03) 9699 3333